Bethel Heights Vineyard

We had enough time to include one last tasting in the Eola-Amity Hills AVA as long as it was close by; Bethel Heights Vineyard came highly recommended by several, so that was our choice.  It wasn’t too far from Left Coast Cellars, in fact, when we realized the address was Salem we were surprised at how close we were to Salem!  Alas, too distant to have made more stops that day.

The basket press in front of Bethel Heights Vineyard tasting room outside of Salem, Oregon.
The basket press in front of Bethel Heights Vineyard tasting room outside of Salem, Oregon.

We admired the old basket press prominently displayed as you walk up to the door.  Glancing right, over the hill we just climbed to get there a sign was posted with an arrow pointing west: Van Duzer Corridor.  We had seen a Van Duzer Winery, so we were intrigued.

Greeting us at the door was Henry, a Fox Terrier/Jack Russel cross of about five years.  He led us into the tasting room where Mindy Casteel, wife of Ben Casteel, wine maker was behind the bar pouring.  This is an all-in-the-family winery, Ben’s cousin, Mimi, is the Viticulturist and GM.  Founded by their parents, twin brothers with their wives, in 1977 the vineyards boast many legitimate old vine blocks of Pinot Noir.  Through the years additional plantings and acquisitions have grown the planted acres to just over 100.  PN clones are the greatest percentage with 76.1 acres, Chardonnay is 16.4 (primarily from the late 90’s on), Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris and Riesling together comprise 9.8 acres.

Apparently there is a cat that call the vineyards home as well.  Jelly Bean is a gray and white tabby of about 7-8 years and Henry isn’t fond of her.  About half way through our tasting Henry began barking and charging the glass door into the production space, Mindy peaked around the corner to discover the cat within the cellar.  Henry was inconsolable while the cat was in view.

Looking southeast from the deck at the Bethel Heights Vineyard Tasting Room.
Looking southeast from the deck at the Bethel Heights Vineyard Tasting Room.

I stepped outside on the vast deck overlooking the Bethel Heights Estate vineyards, down into the Justice Vineyards to take in the views.  The vineyards go all the way down the hill.  Mindy was able to confirm that freezes are very rare, due to the Aeolian Winds along the Van Duzer Corridor which bring the moderate marine temps into the Willamette Valley each evening modifying the hot days of summer and cold days of winter.  I asked about frost concerns (no wind machines anywhere in view) to learn that they are so rare that helicopters are brought in for the very rare occurrences in the spring.  So Eola refers to the winds, Van Duzer to the wind corridor in the Coast Range that brings Pacific Ocean winds inland to the Willamette Valley.  Good to have that clarified.  Oh, asked about the soils to discover the top layers are primarily basalt with marine sediments at deeper levels.  The older vines are all on their own rootstock, but some of the newer blocks have grafted rootstock as there must be water and Phylloxera issues to contend with.

Climate patterns, soils structures, grape clones & rootstock, ages of those vines, and, to some degree, the choices of the wine maker all come into play as the grapes become wine: Terroir.  Sorry Henry and Jelly Bean, you’re a parallel story to that of the grapes.

The wines, we tasted through the summer flight, Riesling, Chardonnay and five PN were lovely.  Both whites were lovely – the 2012 Riesling is off dry, nicely balanced while the 2012 Chardonnay is aged in neutral oak with smooth mouth feel, butter and vanilla at the beginning and a light, tart fruit finish.

The Pinot Noir’s were from three different vintages and four different vineyards, three were 12.3-12.7% while the 2012 was 13.5% ABV.  For me this was a great comparison.  The climactic differences were primarily due to elevation and aspect on the slope (which direction do they face) as they are all within an eight mile radius of each other.  The 2010 Carter Vineyard PN had old leather on the nose and red currants on the palate while the 2011 Carter Vineyard PN had new leather on the nose and pomegranate on the palate, both lingered lightly on the finish; subtle differences.  The 2011 Lewman Vineyard (a neighbors vineyard) had lavender and rose on the nose with a pomegranate palate.  This is a lower elevation vineyard compared to the previous.  The 2011 Justice Vineyard PN had rose and clove aromas, a raspberry palate with mild spices and pepper on the finish.  Again, subtle differences.  But if you have raspberries, pomegranates and red currants at your disposal at the same time you know they are not the same and this comes through in the wine. Lastly, Mindy poured us 2012 Flat Block (BH Estate planted in 1979) PN.  The vines are visible to the north of the tasting room.  The oldest vines, but the newest vintage and there were raspberries on the nose and palate with some pie cherries also on the palate.  The acidity of this wine was nicely balanced by the fruit.  I don’t recall tannins in any of these wines being distinctive as at a couple of the other wineries.  It could be my preconceived notions that make me think that tannins ‘shouldn’t’ be strong in PN wines, but these wines were delightful.  I understand why they came so highly suggested to us.  But we are still early in our Pinot Noir journey!

We closed the place down, so it was time to see what options we had for the evening… next time.


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